INTERLANGUAGE AND LEARNING STRATEGIES IN BOOK OF
“UNDERSTANDING SECOND LANGUAGE ACQUISITION”
Author: Rod Ellis
Oxford University Press, 1986, 323 pages
VOL. 6, NO.2, MARCH 1989
Second language acquisition or second language learning is the process by which people learn a second language in addition to their native language(s). "Second language acquisition" refers to what the learner does; it does not refer to what the teacher does. "Second language acquisition research" studies the psychology and sociology of the learning process. Sometimes the terms "acquisition" and "learning" are not treated as synonyms and are instead used to refer to the subconscious and conscious aspects of this process respectively (see second language learning). "Second language" or "target language" or "L2" are used to refer to any language learned after the native language, which is also called "mother tongue", "first language", "L1", or "source language". Second language acquisition may be abbreviated "SLA", or "L2A", for "L2 acquisition".
Understanding Second Language Acquisition is a thorough and careful synthesis of current research in second language acquisition (SLA). While generally intended for students taking a first course in SLA, Ellis specifically comments on the book's importance for teachers of second or foreign languages: "This book seeks to help teachers make their theory of language learning explicit through an examination of language-learner language and the processes that produce it. It is based on the conviction that teachers will be better off with an explicit set of ideas about language learning" (p.2). The fact that Ellis does not explicitly address himself to the implications of SLA research and theory for teaching second and foreign languages should not deter language teachers from reading this book; it is a highly intelligible account of issues in SLA which are essential to an understanding of the language learning process. Chapter 1 provides a preview of the "key issues" discussed in more detail in subsequent chapters; Ellis considers factors that are both external (e.g. situation, input) and internal (e.g. linguistic and cognitive rocesses) to the learner.
In Chapter 2, Ellis looks at the role of the first language in SLA research, summarizing the criticisms responsible for the demise of the Contrastive Analysis Hypothesis. Whereas the Contrastive Analysis Hypothesis viewed the first language as the sole determinant of SLA (and a negative one, at that), Ellis shows that more recent proposals see it as only one determinant among many. The chapter concludes with a reappraisal of 'transfer' as a learner strategy, potentially making positive contributions to a learner's development in a second language.
The primary purpose of Chapter 3 is the examination/evaluation of the claim that "second language learners acquire a knowledge of a L2 in a fixed order as a result of a predisposition to process language data in highly specific ways" (p. 42). In order to achieve this goal, Ellis reviews early research on Interlanguage, Error Analysis and the 'natural' route of development and makes the general point that learners from different language backgrounds go through similar developmental stages in acquiring a second language. Ellis, however, interprets the results of the morpheme acquisition studies and longitudinal studies as supporting this view, devoting only a few lines to the methodological criticisms of the former. The reader is thus left with the somewhat false impression that these early morpheme acquisition studies provided unequivocal support for the natural order hypothesis.
While Chapter 3 focusses on the features of interlanguage that are common across learners, Chapter 4 is devoted to the variable aspects of interlanguage. Ellis draws a distinction between systematic and non-systematic variability; whereas systematic variability is determined by both the linguistic and situational context, non-systematic variability refers to performance variation and free variation. Of particular interest in this chapter is Ellis's consideration of the role of variability in SLA. Drawing on work by Tarone (1982, 1983), Ellis points out that development in a second language can be viewed as the extension of the linguistic (from simple to complex) and situational (from formal to informal style) contexts in which target-language forms are used.
Chapter 5 investigates the way in which individual learner differences affect the rate and ultimate success of SLA. In an attempt to impose order on the vast number of terms and concepts pertaining to individual learner differences, Ellis presents a taxonomy in which he differentiates between personal and general factors. "Personal factors are highly idiosyncratic features of each individual's approach to learning a L2" (p. 100) while general factors are those that are characteristic of all learners although possibly realized differently in different individuals (i.e. age, aptitude, cognitive style, motivation and personality). As in other chapters, Ellis approaches the relevant research with extreme caution, the result being some very tentative conclusions regarding the effect of personal and general factors on the rate and ultimate success of SLA. Ellis does, however, take a stand on the issue of age; he is critical of biological and cognitive explanations for age differences but finds affective explanations convincing: "Children will prove the more sucessful learners, particularly when pronunciation is concerned, because they are strongly motivated to become part of the first language community and require a native-like accent" (p. 110).
According to Ellis, Chapters 6 and 7 constitute a pair; the former investigates "what happens outside the learner" while the latter considers "what happens inside the learner." Thus, Chapter 6 is concerned with the role of input and interaction in SLA. It is generally assumed that comprehensible input for non-native speakers (NNSs) results from modified input (modifications to the linguistic forms directed at NNSs) and modified interaction (modifications to the interactional structure of discourse between native and non-native speakers). (This is a distinction made by Long 1981). Ellis describes both kinds of modifications as they have been investigated in natural settings and in classrooms. As for the role of input in SLA, Ellis surveys a variety of approaches that have attempted to establish a causal relationship between input and output. He is careful, however, to point out that "there is little hard research showing whether input and interaction does affect SLA ..." (p. 161).
Drawing heavily on work by Frerch and Kasper (1983), Ellis considers "the internal processes which account for how the learner handles input data" (p. 164) in Chapter 7. Following Frerch and Kasper, a distinction is made between two types of L2 knowledge, declarative and procedural. The former is constituted by internalized target language rules and memorized chunks of language whereas the latter consists of strategies used by the learner in acquisition and use of the target language. The chapter focusses on procedural knowledge: that is, strategies used in internalizing and automatizing L2 knowledge (learning strategies) and strategies used in compensating for inadequate L2 knowledge (communication strategies). While most of this chapter is concerned with the defining and categorizing of relevant terms and concepts, it concludes with a discussion of the role of communication strategies in SLA.
Chapter 8, like Chapters 2 and 3, considers the influence of linguistic processes on SLA. More specifically, the role of linguistic universals in SLA is examined in an attempt to address the major problem of the Contrastive Analysis Hypothesis, namely, why do some differences between the native and target language cause difficulty for the L2 learner whereas others do not? (In this sense, Chapter 8 would be more logically ordered immediately after Chapters 2 and 3.) Most of the research Ellis reviews concerns the interaction of linguistic markedness and transfer. While the results of such research is sometimes contradictory and inconclusive, the area generally adds a fruitful new dimension to investigations of the role of the first language in SLA.
Chapter 9 will be of particular interest to the second language teacher as it deals with the effects of formal instruction on SLA. Again, the results of research are somewhat inconclusive; formal instruction seems to have some positive effect on the rate and success of SLA but no major effect on the route. Ellis presents three explanations for these results (i.e. the non-interface position, the interface position and the variability position) and discusses the pedagogical implications of each. The differences between these three positions concern the relationship between two types of linguistic knowledge in SLA, 'acquired' vs. 'learned' or 'implicit' vs. 'explicit'. Thus, the pedagogical implications of each differ in terms of how the teaching of formal grammar or focus on the L2 code is viewed. As Ellis does not come to any conclusion regarding the value of each of the three positions, teachers are not provided with definitive answers about the role of formal grammar teaching in the classroom. The pedagogical section is instructive, however, in its attempt to relate theoretical explanations to classroom practice.
In Chapter 10, Ellis briefly reviews seven theories of SLA and in this concluding chapter demonstrates how different theoretical perspectives can account for the same second language phenomenon in differing ways.
In sum, Ellis has synthesized a large body of research into an extremely clear and thorough account of relevant issues in the field. The book's greatest strength lies in its balanced, objective approach to the subject matter. Rather than putting forth his own views of language acquisition, Ellis carefully considers the relative influence of various factors on the SLA process. While his cautious interpretations of research findings are at times unsatisfying, his tentative conclusions are probably an accurate reflection of the 'state of the art' in SLA.
In this part, it would focused on interlanguage and strategies to learners in acquiring the target langauge (TL). Ellis has explained it on chapter 3 in the. The concept of interlanguage (IL) was suggested by Selinker (1972) in order to draw attention to the possibility that the learner’s language can be regarded as a distinct language variety or system with its own particular characteristics and rules. IL is a structured and interlocking system which the learner constructs at a given stage in his development. An L2 leaner, at any particular moment in his learning sequence, is using a language system which is independent of both the TL and the learner’s MT. It is a third language, with its own grammar, its own lexicon and so on. The rules used by the learner are to be found in neither his own MT, nor in the TL.
Interlanguage scholarship seeks to understand learner language on its own terms, as a natural language with its own systematic rules. Interlanguage scholars reject, at least for heuristic purposes, the view of learner language as merely an imperfect version of the target language. Interlanguage work is a vibrant microcosm of linguistics. It is possible to apply an interlanguage perspective to learners' underlying knowledge of the target language sound system (interlanguage phonology), grammar (morphology and syntax), vocabulary (lexicon), and language-use norms found among learners (interlanguage pragmatics).
By describing the ways in which learner language conforms to universal linguistic norms, interlanguage research has contributed greatly to our understanding of linguistic universals in SLA. See below, under "linguistic universals".
The earliest formulation of the notion interlanguage was that proposed by Corder (1967 in www.sla-research.com, 2000). One of its crucial contributions was its underlying assumption that the learner’s knowledge is to be seen as a unified whole, in which new knowledge is integrated and systematically reorganized with previous knowledge of the native language. By a gradual process of trial-and-error or hypothesis testing, learners slowly and tediously succeed in establishing closer approximations to the system used by the native speaker of the language.
Various alternative terms have been used by different researchers to refer to the same phenomenon as IL. Corder proposed the notions of “idiosyncratic dialects” (also see Ellis, 1985, p. 47; Brown, 1994, pp. 203-204; Freeman & Long, 1994: as cited in www.sla-research.com, 2000) to identify the idea that the learner’s language is peculiar and “transitional competence” to pinpoint the dynamic nature of the learners’ developing system. In another similar model, a paper by Nemser (1971 in www.linguistlist.org, 2009) referred to this learner language as “approximative system”, one of a series of approximative stages through which the leaner moves in his acquisition of the TL.
IL may be viewed as an adaptive strategy by which the learners try to construct the structural properties of the TL. This strategy uses simplification, reduction, overgeneralization, transfer, formulaic language, omissions, substitutions and restructurings (Selinker, 1972 in www.sla-research.com, 2000). Learners do not progress from zero knowledge of a TL rule to perfect knowledge of the rule. By using the above mentioned devices, they progress through a series of interim of developmental stages on their way to TL proficiency. These interconnected stages or systems form what Corder (1967) called the learner’s “built-in syllabus” (i.e. the interlanguage continuum).
The form which IL takes can be accounted for by reference to a number of cognitive processes, five of which isolates then as being of central importance in the language acquisition puzzle: language transfer, transfer of training, strategies of second language learning, strategies of second language communication, and overgeneralization of TL linguistic material (Corder 1967). The five processes together constitute the ways in which the leaner tries to internalize the L2 system. The characteristics of IL are described by many researchers as follows: 1) permeable, in the sense that rules that constitute the learner’s knowledge at any one stage are not fixed, but are open to amendment (Ellis, 1985) dynamic, in the sense that L2 learner slowly revises their variable interim systems to accommodate new hypothesis about the TL system; 3) systematic, in that L2 learner’s IL is rule-governed, that is, the learner bases his performance plans on his existing rule system much the same way as the native speaker bases his plans on his internalized knowledge of the L1 system.
Interlanguage fossilization is a stage during second language acquisition. When mastering a target language (TL), second language (L2) learners develop a linguistic system that is self-contained and different from both the learner’s first language (L1) and the TL (Nemser, 1971). This linguistic system has been variously called interlanguage (IL) (Selinker, 1972), approximative system (Nemser, 1971), idiosyncratic dialects or transitional dialects (Corder, 1971), etc.
According to Corder (1981), this temporary and changing grammatical system, IL, which is constructed by the learner, approximates the grammatical system of the TL. In the process of L2 acquisition, IL continually evolves into an ever-closer approximation of the TL, and ideally should advance gradually until it becomes equivalent, or nearly equivalent, to the TL. However, during the L2 learning process, an IL may reach one or more temporary restricting phases when its development appears to be detained (Nemser, 1971; Selinker, 1972; Schumann, 1975). A permanent cessation of progress toward the TL has been referred to as fossilization (Selinker, 1972). This linguistic phenomenon, IL fossilization, can occur despite all reasonable attempts at learning (Selinker, 1972). Fossilization includes those items, rules, and sub-systems that L2 learners tend to retain in their IL, that is, all those aspects of IL that become entrenched and permanent, and that the majority of L2 learners can only eliminate with considerable effort (Omaggio, 2001). Moreover, it has also been noticed that this occurs particularly in adult L2 learners’ IL systems (Nemser, 1971; Selinker, 1972, Selinker & Lamendella, 1980.).
Selinker (1972) suggests that the most important distinguishing factor related to L2 acquisition is the phenomenon of fossilization. However, both his explanation that “fossilizable linguistic phenomena are linguistic items, rules, and subsystems which speakers of a particular native language will tend to keep in their interlanguage relative to a particular target language, no matter what the age of the learner or amount of explanation or instruction he receives in the target language” (Selinker, 1972, p. 215) and his hypotheses on IL fossilization are fascinating in that they contradict our basic understanding of the human capacity to learn. How is it that some learners can overcome IL fossilization, even if they only constitute, according to Selinker, “a mere 5%” (1972, p. 212), while the majority of L2 learners cannot, ‘no matter what the age or amount of explanation or instruction’? Or is it perhaps not that they cannot overcome fossilization, but that they will not? Does complacency set in after L2 learners begin to communicate, as far as they are concerned, effectively enough, in the TL, and as a result does motivation to achieve native-like competence diminish?
The concept of fossilization in SLA research is so intrinsically related to IL that Selinker (1972) considers it to be a fundamental phenomenon of all SLA and not just to adult learners. Fossilization has received such wide recognition that it has been entered in the Random House Dictionary of the English Language (1987). Selinker’s concept of fossilization is similar to that of Tarone (1976), Nemser (1971), and Sridhar (1980), all of whom attempted to explore the causes of fossilization in L2 learners’ IL.
Fossilization has attracted considerable interest among researchers and has engendered significant differences of opinion. The term, borrowed from the field of paleontology, and actually a misnomer, is effective because it conjures up an image of dinosaurs being enclosed in residue and becoming a set of hardened remains encased in sediment. The metaphor, as used in SLA literature, is appropriate because it refers to earlier language forms that become encased in a learner’s IL and that, theoretically, cannot be changed by special attention or practice of the TL. Despite debate over the degree of permanence, fossilization is generally accepted as a fact of life in the process of SLA.
One factor of obvious relevance is motivation, and studies have been conducted regarding motivation to learning L2 (Gardner, 1988; Gardner & Smythe, 1975; Schumann, 1976, 1978a, l978b), and the relationship of fossilization to the learner’s communicative needs (Corder, 1978; Nickel, 1998; Ushioda, 1993). Arguments have emerged regarding adult learners’ general lack of empathy with TL native speakers and culture. According to Guiora et al. (1972), adults do not have the motivation to change their accent and to acquire native-like pronunciation. Unlike children, who are generally more open to TL culture, adults have more rigid language ego boundaries. Thus, adults may be inclined to establishing their pre-existing cultural and ethnic identity, and this they do by maintaining their stereotypical accent (Guiora et al., 1972). Notwithstanding this, there is a lack of needed research, particularly regarding achievement motivation, especially considering that fossilization can be considered the most distinctive characteristic of adult SLA.
Communication and Learning Strategies
Cohen (1998) as quoted in Tobias Gunas (2008) summarizes the issue of learning strategies as the distinction between the two kinds of strategies is that between learning and use respectively. Language learning strategies are the attempts to develop linguistic and sociolinguistic competence in the target language (Tarone, 1980). On the other hand, one could legitimately wonder about the so-called ‘social language learning strategies’ that appear in the relevant research (Oxford, 1990: cited in www.linguistlist.org, 2009). Clarification questions and cooperation strategies would fall under this. Asking for clarification is bound to be present in an environment where people interact, and negotiation of meaning is vital. Clarification in the language classroom occurs in the form of paraphrasing, repeating, giving examples or explaining (Oxford, 1990:146-7). This ‘overlap’, however, could be expalined by the motivation underlying the use of each strategy. Clarification requests, for example, could be classified as a learning strategy if the learner sees to extend his linguistic competence; or as a communication strategy if it is used to convey meaning. Recently however, research has started to focus on whether indeed the communication strategies used by language learners to overcome a communication problem, can result in, or enhance, language acquisition.
Interactional and Cognitive Approach
As indicated by the name of the two approaches, communication strategies have been treated quite differently in SLA research; as a mutual attempt by participants in a communicative situation to maintain communication, and as a cognitive process of the speaker himself with a focus o comprehension and production, respectively. The shift towards the cognitive approach in the discussion of communication strategies is more recent, while the interactional framework is that of the first researchers defining communication strategies as “mutual attempts of two interlocutors to agree on meaning in situational where the requisite meaning structures do not seem to be shared” (Tarone, 1980)
In www.sla-pdf.com (2009) some experts like Ellis (1994), Tarone (1980), and others however, argue that the interactional approach have been criticized mainly on account of the typology upset to describe them. This has proven to have many overlaps and thus, it does not provide for a valid and indeed useful means to classify communication strategies. Bialystok and Kellerman (1987) as quoted in Tobias Gunas, 2008 criticize this kind of taxonomies “more complex than they really are”. Further, they argue that an overlap between the categories is inevitable as the classification is “product-oriented” and in some cases, the difference between categories is trivial. In general, the two researchers question the validity of taxonomy provided by Tarone and urge for a reanalysis of the communication strategies’ definition and classification.
Istead of studying the product utterances, as the earlier research had done, Bialystok and Kellerman suggest looking rather at the underlying processes. Fowllowing this, they difine communication strategies as “the manipulation of either a semantic concept or a language or both in order to express particular intentions” so that, basically, the strategies can categorized and described as linguistic and conceptual; the latter further distinguished in holistic and analytic, while the former includes language transfer. What comes out of their discussion is that in fact, there are no differences in the processes used by native and non-native speakers when using communication strategies. They only difference is in language proficiency, between native and non-native speakers, and age, between learners.
These two approaches have been defined as inter-individual and intra-individual respectively. It is understood that the former stresses the “mutual attempt” of the interlocutors to achieve communication, while the latter sees communication strategies as processes ‘within’ the individual, focusing thus on a psycholinguistic and cognitive view of their use (Bialystok and Kellerman, 1987; Kasper and Kellerman, 1997 as quoted in Tobias Gunas, 2008). As it has already been mentioned, the classification, and indeed the identification of communication strategies depends clearly on the approach one chooses to adopt, and hence, on whether one believes them to be behavioral and thus observable (relying on the learners’ output), or whether they are not (relying on the learners’ self-report) (Kasper and Kellerman, 1997, cited in Tobias Gunas, 2008).
In summary, although, from what has been discussed above, we can find the interference of L1 into L2 hypothesis and error analysis have been overshadowed by interlanguage theory in SLA, their value of studying L2 learning process and their significance in directing SLA research cannot be underestimated. Each of these three theories has devoted significantly to the study of SLA process. They can be looked upon as three evolutionary goals of one goal: to understand and explain the nature of the TL learners’ performance. Therefore, an integration of three schools is needed to deal with the complexities of SLA and provide empirical evidence for the improvement of teaching methodology.
1. Ellis, Road. 1985. Understanding Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press
2. Gunas, Tobias, 2008. A Thesis: Communication Strategy by Indonesian EFL learners in the classroom of SMA Negeri 1 Singaraja. Unpublished in Libray of Post Graduate Program of Undiksha, Singaraja-Bali.
3. www.sla-pdf.com, 2009
4. www.linguistlist.org, 2009
5. www.sla-research.com, 2000